Pluralism and Interreligious Participation


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Pluralism and Interfaith participation by Alix Landmann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Based on a work at wiwitan.org.

Participation as tool for inter-religious freedom: a theoretic perspective

In my opinion, one should argue for the development of mutual trust in interfaith relations rather then to promote only tolerance and dialogue. Most of the contemporary societies are plural societies: they are religiously, culturally, ethnically, and intellectually or ideologically heterogeneous.

Religious plurality has become an “undeniable fact” in modern societies. (Prothero 2006: 6; Weber 2002) In this context, the point open to controversy is, whether modern societies and nation states are willing to accept this diversity/plurality, and how they organize ethico-religio-cultural diversity. As far as religious plurality is concerned, these questions constitute important fields of inquiry in all disciplines of religious studies. (Weber 2002)

Because religious peace is an important cement of domestic peace (Tibi 1995; Lähnemann 2008), a critical academic challenge for religious studies today is inquiring into the encounter of religious communities with other religious communities and their relations with the state in order to gain insight into the dynamics of religious life and identities. A comparative glance at those mechanism in different nation states shows, that actually each state has developed a specific mechanism to manage the plurality of religions. (Stepan 2001; Casanova 1994)

Necessarily, a distinction between diversity/plurality and pluralism (Skeie 1995, 2003; in Jackson 2003: 3; Skeie 2006) needs to be drawn. Traditional plurality refers to societies in which the origin of religious plurality is either historical or caused by migration; whereas modern plurality refers to the pluralistic intellectual climate of contemporary thought. (Ingram 2004) Thus, traditional and modern plurality refer to a given social condition within a nation state characterized by the contemporaneous presence of groups distinct in linguistic, cultural or ethnic backgrounds, faith traditions, world views or different political attitudes and concepts expressed in competing and probably contradictory assumptions, ideas and values.

Skeie suggests “using the word ‘plurality’ in cases where a description of diversity is intended, and the word ‘pluralism’ where the intention is to give a normative valuation of the plurality.” (Skeie 2006: 308)

With regard to religion, diversity/plurality denotes the concurrent existence of different faith traditions at one place in time, whereas religious pluralism goes beyond mere diversity to active engagement with the plurality of faith traditions. In this light, “pluralism as normative position” (Skeie 2006: 308) refers to the presence and toleration of those diverse groups within the modern nation state, the “protector of religion and religious education” (Moran 2006: 46), because religious diversity will create growing tensions and conflicts in contemporary societies without any real encounter (Eck 2006) between those faith traditions.

Diversity or plurality of faith traditions is interpreted here as social reality that may be “studied, celebrated, or complained about” (Ingram 2004), but pluralism (Callan 1998; Weber 2002; Ingram 2004; Eck 2006) is a social construction,

“a theological, academic, or civil orientation, a theoretical, or political construct seeking to interpret and organize coherently the data of religious diversity”. (Ingram, 2004: 136)

Skeie (2006: 310-311) suggests that our reactions to and understanding of plurality often rest upon a implicit understanding of plurality, in this “the description of socio-cultural plurality are always in some way marked by certain attitudes towards plurality, even if they are not explicitly articulated as theories or positions”.

Parekh (1996 in Skeie 2006: 310-311) identifies three types of such attitudes: 1. Naturalist attitudes; 2. Rationalistic attitudes; and 3.) Romantic attitudes. I tend to take a romantic attitude toward pluralism by adopting an open view of human nature and – socio-cultural plurality is then seen as “a fact of life”; instead of trying to overcome it, “we should acknowledge it”. (Skeie 2006: 310)

“Plurality is a result of deep-going divisions between humans; it is not a matter of superficial differences that can be overcome”. (Skeie 2006: 310)

However, I assumes that there is enough common human potential and common human creativity (Skeie 2006: 311; Sen 2007; Avruch 1998) to build up a common ground for peace.

“The politics of religion concern not only maneuverings in a religiously plural society but also the way a religion articulates with the authority structure of a nation or particular locale.” (Smith-Kipp/Rodgers: 1987: 28)

Crucial for pluralism is interaction and processes of integration and disintegration. As Eck argued, in the world in which we live today tolerance does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, which will be increasingly costly by leaving in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence.

If inter faith dialogue is considered exclusively as cognitive affair, it fails because the dialogue partners either are not capable of understanding each other or simply rejecting to understand each other. The downside of disinterest in dialogue fears the bereavement of identity, self-definition, supremacy, hegemony, and material interests. Tolerance reflects a superior-inferior relation between religions; one religious community holds the monopoly of truth and absoluteness, but acknowledges that there may be certain ideas of other religions that contain truth as well. Mutual respect and acceptance is more than religious tolerance.

Religious pluralism engages in dialogue as communicative exchange, correlation and reciprocal interplay of its dialogue partners, leading to true friendship and to mutual enrichment of ideas and concepts by reciprocal reflection.

Religious dialogue does not preclude religious communities from inter-faith interaction that is participating in the practices of other religious communities. A successful dialogue is essential for the survival of societies and it is the most difficult task of the future which demands extraordinarily inter cultural and inter religious competence and capability of translation between emic boundaries.

The supreme aim of dialogue is concrete teamwork and cooperation in practice to reach and realize common public interest, may it be human dignity, social justice, value-based economy and transparency of state affairs to gain human security.

A true dialogue cannot take place unless the dimension of mutual witnessing the truths of other religious communities is included that every partner in the dialogue holds and practices in religious life. This means that the conviction about the absoluteness of one’s partner must not be concealed from each other, but rather becomes an essential part of the values and treasures shared between them. By equally positioning the dialogue partners, the idea of dialogue as discursive public space for exchange, interplay and interaction leads not only to tolerance, but to true inter faith friendship and reciprocal enrichment of the mutual understanding of ideas and concepts starting from an inter subjective to an inter faith level. Therefore dialogue should not be solely limited to cognitive spheres but should be located at the very heart of human being by penetrating the affective-emotional dimension and the level of interrelation by interaction and reciprocal participation.

Three types of dialogue happen; first, at the grassroots’ level are situations in daily life’s interaction where the dialogue of everyday life simply happens. Second there is dialogue between religious experts and leaders, at university level or as inter theological dialogue. Third there can be dialogue about spiritual experiences, or individual experience of knowledge about the holy or divine. However, the essential basic precondition is that dialogue is carried out between equals and not between superiors and inferiors.

In my opinion, dialogue should not be aimed to achieve a questionable inter faith consensus, because the basic concepts and ideas of religions are not at disposal. If Frits Staal is true, and ritual is meaningless and not part of religion, so rituals performed by religious communities are actually not part of religion but of human and animal condition therefore unavoidable and there is no need to argue about them they simply are performed.

Mature humans open heartedly have to accept diversity as basic feature of nature and societies. Truth in all faith is equally valid and the holy can be accessed by various paths of salvation. The idea of dialogue provides therefore a discursive public space for the negotiation and understanding of inter-religious truth. By no means is such a dialogue forcible, it takes place amidst daily life by respecting what others regard as holy or true to them. Through a common search on the particular salvation paths to achieve truth that reaches upon the hearts of the dialogue partners, diversity is accepted as divine richness and gift and the idea of the absoluteness of a single divine truth has to be rejected as human fallibility. All limitlessness of worldly and material reality is in the last cause put into perspective by the unlimitlessness of the Divine truth.


[1] Cf. Eck, Diana L. What is pluralism( www.pluralism.org/pluralism/what_is_pluralism.php)

[2] Cf. Schumann, O. 2001: 26

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